Suharto: As He Lays Dying

Singaporean senior minister Lee Kuan Yew (left) and former Indonesian dictator Suharto after a meeting in February 2006. (Photo: Dewira / AFP-Getty Images)

It is 4 p.m., Jan. 13, 2008. The main entrance to Pertamina Hospital in South Jakarta is besieged by dozens of journalists. Almost all of them are local, as Indonesia doesn't attract international media conglomerates, unless there is a deadly landslide, tsunami, or airplane crash. Some reporters are placing the lenses of video and photo cameras against the glass of the hospital entrance, hoping to spot at least some action.

But there is hardly any detectable movement inside. Gen. Suharto, the 86-year old former military dictator who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades, is lying somewhere deep inside this unattractive concrete structure, dying or more precisely in a "very critical condition" after almost all organ functions failed, as his doctor told a news conference. He was rushed to the hospital nine days earlier suffering from anemia and low blood pressure due to heart, lung, and kidney problems.

There is no end to the flow of dignitaries offering support or early condolences to his family. Today arrived the stone-faced and tight-lipped former Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto's close friend, contemporary, and fellow anti-Communist crusader. Lee, who refused to answer questions of Indonesian journalists, later loosened up to his countrymen, offering his sentiments to Channel News Asia and other Singaporean media: "I feel sad to see a very old friend with whom I had worked closely over the last 30 years not really getting the honors that he deserves. Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favors to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress," Lee was quoted as saying.

Nine years after Suharto stepped down, Indonesia remains one of the world's most corrupt nations. According to Berlin-based Transparency International, it occupies 143rd place out of 180 countries ranked, tied with Gambia, Russia, and Togo (The 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index).

According to the United Nations and the World Bank, there was much more than just average corruption and nepotism during and after Suharto's reign: Suharto tops the list of embezzlers with an estimated $15-35 billion, followed by former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, former president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko, and Sani Abacha of Nigeria. An impressive achievement considering that Suharto's salary in 1999—the year he was forced to resign after massive demonstrations that shook Jakarta—was only $1,764 a month. Critics say that Suharto and his family actually amassed more than $45 billion, even more than concluded by both the United Nations and the World Bank. The family is said to control about 36,000 square kilometers of real estate in Indonesia, including 100,000 square meters of prime office space in Jakarta, and nearly 40 percent of the land in East Timor. More than $73 billion is said to have passed through the family's hands during Suharto's 32-year rule.

But even to allude to such information can still be illegal in Indonesia. The United Nations and World Bank listing arrived just one week after Indonesia's Supreme Court ordered Time Magazine to pay $106 million in damages to the former dictator for defaming him in a 1999 article that accused Suharto and his relatives of amassing billions of dollars during his regime.

Offers made by international organizations to the Indonesian government—to help to identify, freeze, and repatriate money from accounts held by Suharto's family abroad—were spurned and very rarely discussed by the media.

Suharto was charged with embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds, but the government subsequently dropped the case on grounds of the dictator's poor health. In 2007, state prosecutors filed a civil suit seeking a total of $440 million of state funds and a further $1 billion in damages for the alleged misuse of money held by one of Suharto's charitable foundations. But President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had risen as a general under the Suharto regime, instructed Attorney General Hendarman Supandji to seek an out-of-court settlement of the civil case with the Suharto family, as the former dictator was fighting for his life in Pertamina Hospital.

Like almost all mainstream Indonesian politicians, Yudhoyono refused to criticize Suharto openly. "Pak Harto [Father Harto] was a leader of this nation. His contributions to this nation are not small. As a human being, however, like other people, Pak Harto has weaknesses and mistakes," he told the press, referring to Suharto by his endearing name.

The Jakarta Post, the pro-establishment English-language daily newspaper, on Jan. 12, captioned its front page photos: "In Their Prayers: Vice President Jusuf Kalla … visits former President Suharto at Pertamina Hospital in South Jakarta on Friday. Suciwati…, the widow of human rights advocate Munir Said Thalib, and relatives of other victims of human rights violations place flowers in the lobby of Pertamina Hospital on Friday. They said they would continue with their legal battles against former President Suharto for human rights crimes that occurred during his rule. All the visitors said they were praying for Suharto."

What The Jakarta Post "forgot" to mention was that many human rights activists, as reported by the Indonesian-language daily Kompas, wished for Suharto's recovery so that he could stand trial.

Garda Sembiring, head of P.E.C. (People's Empowerment Consortium)—the Indonesia N.G.O. that tries to unveil human rights crimes, including mass murder cases that took place during 1965 military coup—was himself a prisoner of conscience during the Suharto era. In a phone interview, he expressed outrage at the present situation: "Everybody is now talking about Suharto's illness. I am in shock! Political elites are turning the situation into a political drama. They have a motive: they want the Indonesian people to forget the past. And me personally? Why should I forgive him? I'd love to see him recover, so he could be brought to justice. That's why it would be better for him and for all of us if he survives."

Attempts to try Suharto on charges of genocide have failed not because of his failing health but above all because of the unwillingness of the post-1999 political establishment to openly deal with the past. Indonesia experienced no profound political change in the wake of Suharto's ouster. The country has been ruled by the same business and military elites, with the exception of the brief presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, who was forced out of power when he sought to separate religion from the state, apologize to the victims of the1965 massacres, and introduce social changes in Indonesia's market-driven system.

Human rights organizations as well as almost all leading historians are accusing Suharto of playing a key role in the 1965 United States-supported military coup designed to sideline nationalist President Sukarno and destroy the Communist Party of Indonesia (P.K.I.), at that time the third largest communist party in the world.

On the night of Sept. 30/Oct. 1, 1965, a group of Sukarno's personal guards kidnapped and murdered six of the right-wing anti-Communist generals. Sukarno's guards claimed that they were trying to stop a C.I.A.-backed military coup, which was planned to remove Sukarno from power on "Army Day." Suharto joined surviving right wing Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution to spearhead a propaganda campaign against the P.K.I. and Sukarno's loyalists.

What followed was a military takeover and a months long orgy of terror, the mass murder of P.K.I. members, citizens of Chinese origin, left-leaning men and women, intellectuals, artists, and anyone who was denounced by neighbors or foes. Massacres were mainly performed by the military and by the right-wing religious groups who went on a rampage against "atheists." Between 500,000 and 3 million people vanished in several months, making the Indonesian killing fields some of the most intensive in world history.

The United States supported the coup and the C.I.A. supplied Suharto and his allies with a list of 10,000 suspected communists. A subsequent C.I.A. study of the events concluded, "In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-P.K.I. massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century" (George McT. Kahin and Audrey R. Kahin, "Subversion as Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia." New York: The New Press, 1995).

Political dissent was destroyed, so were the trade unions. Indonesia became "open for business," mainly for multinational mining and oil companies willing to take advantage of a scared and docile work force and prepared to pay undisclosed amounts in bribes in exchange for access to the country's abundant raw materials.

Thousands of teachers were murdered. Artists were silenced, film studios closed down. Places where intellectuals of different races used to mingle were destroyed and replaced by the anonymous concrete walls of shopping malls and parking lots. Books were burned, including those of Southeast Asia's greatest novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who became a long-term prisoner of conscience in Buru concentration camp. Pramoedya, until his death in 2006, never forgave Suharto. But not for his personal suffering, rather for "having no culture; for turning Indonesia into a market; for destroying Sukarno's spirit of enthusiasm."

Indonesia after 1965 was experiencing its "Year Zero," like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It closed itself to the world for several years, until those who were targeted were rounded up and slaughtered. According to eyewitnesses, the Brantas River in East Java, as well as others throughout the archipelago, was clogged with corpses and red with blood.

The West did not protest. Suharto was viewed as an ally by the United States, Britain, Australia, and other nations who were delighted to have the leader of Indonesia a free-marketer and an ally in the Cold War rather than the populist and non-aligned movement proponent, Sukarno.

Indonesia is an enormous archipelago. It was easy to suppress information, to keep its people in oblivion, to bombard them with propaganda, to isolate them from the rest of the world. No films but Hollywood and local production, with some syrupy soap from all over the world. No serious topics. Only pop, outdated music. The Chinese language was banned, and so were words like "atheism" and "class." For the rest of the world that was barred from learning about the tragedy of 1965-66, it was easy to believe the mass media, which hailed Suharto as an ally and statesman. It was the time of the Cold War and the major American preoccupation was Vietnam. When the dust settled, bodies buried, washed away, or decomposed, Indonesia opened up again: for business and tourism. The Indonesian people, for the most part, were terrorized into silence, with no memory and no desires except to move rhythmically to the latest pop tunes and prayers, close to starvation but grinning as ordered, with no complex thoughts and questions; lobotomized.

And Suharto, a man now fighting for his life, was in charge.

Then came East Timor. In 1975, Suharto sent troops to the newly independent nation that had long suffered from Portuguese colonial neglect—a country that finally won independence and sought to adopt a social (not Communist) course. What followed was a massacre not unlike the one in 1965 (and performed by many familiar faces). Two hundred thousand people—one third of the entire nation—vanished. It seemed that Indonesia was determined to break the record for brutality. The Cold War again played into Suharto's hands. He bombastically justified the invasion of the defenseless little nation—"We will not tolerate Cuba next to our shores"—and received applause and a green light once again, from the United States, Australia, and others. Then came Aceh, Papua, and "trans-migration."

Suharto may have embezzled more money than any other leader in modern history, turning the economy into his private checking account. But he also may be a man responsible for more deaths than any other dictator since World War II.

"I am very disappointed with S. B. Y. [President Yudhoyono] and the attorney general," says Ditasari, leader of the only progressive opposition party in Indonesia—Papernas—for this article. "Statements made by both of them make no sense. We shouldn't hesitate to go on with the legal process, despite Suharto's illness. But the government is scared of those who support Suharto."

As he is dying, Suharto continues to hold the entire country hostage. With fear and opportunism, business and political leaders are goose-stepping in front of his bed. In central Java, country folks say that he sold his soul to black magic, which is why he cannot depart from this world. Everybody seems to be petrified about saying anything that might be deemed inappropriate or offensive.

Behind the windows of the hospital, the decaying city is covered by smog. Despite official statistics, more than half of Indonesians live in misery (even the World Bank classifies 49 percent of Indonesians as poor). Behind the windows lies an enormous, ruined, uncompetitive, and uneducated country, suffering from decades of fear that has left a legacy of blind obedience and, finally, of intellectual stagnation.

Tens of millions of Indonesians can still hear the cries of terror of those who were hacked and beaten to death, decades ago. But they have learned to doubt their own eyes and ears. They have learned to obey.

Suharto may die a free man, surrounded by elites, by servile compliments. But surely even he will not be able to avoid some memories, even in a coma. It is not easy to forget a million people, a million deaths. Standing next to each other, they can fill enormous space and their screams, coming in unison, can break the walls of any hospital—even a private one. And once these screams and cries reach him, he will know that he departs a criminal.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andre Vltchek.